I didn't know it at the time, but my last squat workout was on May 1st, 2017. It was an easy workout, 225lbs for five sets of five, but my knees cracked and popped on each rep, and I had trouble walking out of the gym.
The pain never got better. This wasn't typical leg-day soreness. It wasn't muscular pain. This was an issue with the joins themselves. Days, weeks later I still had trouble walking and taking the stairs.
My wife finally bullied me into seeing my doctor, who ordered X-rays and an MRI. The images showed two torn ligaments, a torn tendon, bone spurs, and "floating bodies," whatever the hell that means.
Last Friday I met with an orthopedic surgeon, who told me two things: one, I had degenerative osteoarthritis in my knees, and two, that I would never squat again.
I'm thirty seven, but I have the knees of a seventy-year-old man. I'm not a candidate for surgery, so the best they can do is pain management. And now I'm not sure what to do. I'm not sure what I am.
I've always been strong. Lifting weights, being bigger and stronger and better than I was yesterday has always been a core part of my identity. But now my own body is betraying me, and I'm not sure who I am anymore.
I have other things. People I love, activities I enjoy, skills that I'm proud of. But I don't have "being strong" anymore, and without that, me isn't one hundred percent me.
I suppose I can join the masses, throw on a pair of sweatpants and skip leg day for the next thirty years, but the rack will still be calling my name. I suppose I can get back into Yoga and calisthenics, become good at a different kind of strong, but the iron was and always will be my first love, and I'm going to miss her.
I don't have a whole lot of wisdom to impart about this. I'm still kind of processing myself. But I will say four things:
One: Don't do stupid shit. Unfortunately this message will be lost on the people who need it most. I think a lot of my issues started in high school, when I was quarter-squatting six hundred pounds because I thought I was awesome, or when I raced with the other guys on the team to see who could do the most leg extensions with the full stack in one minute. Or hell, even running cross-country in the off season. Two hundred pound men do not run cross-country.
Two: Learn good form. It's an old saying, but it's true: squatting doesn't hurt your knees, the way you squat hurts your knees.
Three: Don't train through pain. Pain is a signal that something's wrong. Sometimes, pain is injury entering the body, no matter what your friend's shirt says.
Four: Enjoy yourself while you can. Chances are you're too young to be worried about the end of your career. So am I. It still happened. Every once in a while take a moment to appreciate the fact that you are, in all likelihood, one of the strongest people on the planet. Sure, there are hundreds or thousands of professionals that are stronger than you, but the vast majority of humans on this planet don't even bother trying to improve themselves. The fact that you're even in there, that you're under the bar and trying, puts you well ahead of the pack.